To print this page, select File-> Print from your browser menu.

The Lives of Plovers

Jenny Erbes


Prrrt prrrt. My ears are bent for this tell-tale warning call of a Western Snowy Plover tending its chicks. I pause at the undulating seam between sea and sand. Moisture beads on my binoculars as I scan the beach for a broody male. Thick, low-lying fog, typical of July mornings here in Monterey Bay, makes plover-monitoring a soggy challenge.

There's a male speeding toward a dune! Most of the bay's Snowy Plovers sport a unique color-band combination. Although his legs are swift, by peering through my spotting scope I can identify this rusty-capped, white-breasted beacon in the fog: Violet/White-Aqua/Pink. Just the one I'm looking for! Pencil nub in hand, I scribble the essentials into my sandy notebook--date, time, location, color-band combination, and behavior.

PRBO has had its binoculars--and color bands--on Monterey Bay's Snowy Plovers since 1978, so these small details serve a valuable purpose. They will be incorporated into a data set spanning 29 years! This intensive and long-term monitoring project has generated scientific information crucial to the management and conservation of these imperiled beach-nesters.

Now in my fifth year as a researcher here, I have become well acquainted with the local birds. I remember when this particular male, Violet/White- Aqua/Pink (now one year old with his own chicks) was a freshly hatched chick himself. Just hours old, he sauntered away while I was banding his siblings. After a few feet he paused, then spun around and faced me, as though sizing me up. Silhouetted against the sky, with fresh color bands on his legs and drooping winglets at his side, he looked like a little cowboy in chaps, ready for a showdown.
Jenny Erbes at work on the Monterey shore. Photo by Tiffany Worthington

"The Cowboy" has neighbors like "Swirly-head" (a.k.a. "Punk Rocker") because of some unruly cap feathers, "Bob G." due to his combo of Blue/Orange- Blue/Green, and "Mystery Male" who is quite predictable in his unpredictability. These are just a few of the 330 breeding "Snowies" currently in Monterey Bay, and I'm one of a handful of plover biologists here. Imagine the wealth of stories and data that have accrued over the years! Individual birds' behaviors, and their mate selections throughout their lifetimes, are so intriguing that there are even Web pages dedicated to these Snowy Plover "soap operas" (including at www.prbo.org).

Recently though, it's the data that have been in the spotlight. When the 2004 petition to "delist" this population was released, PRBO was primed to respond: our comprehensive data showed that the coastal population segment is distinct and requires continued protections under the Endangered Species Act (see box).

The prrrt prrrt of Violet/White- Aqua/Pink softens as he lifts off and flies beyond a low dune. Aiming my scope in that direction, I scan for his fuzzy, three- week-old chicks. Sure enough! Two squirrelly chick heads are bobbing in the distance, popping in and out of the vegetation. Soon "The Cowboy's" chicks will be winging their way through the soggy skies of Monterey Bay!